Rick Snyder, Terri Lynn Land — September 8, 2014 at 7:13 am

The Politics of Debating: Why Michigan’s political dysfunction continues to make YOU work harder


Politics have many unofficial rules and philosophies that have been followed for years. Pundits of all political persuasions sometimes use these “excuses” to strengthen their point of view, or to protect their party’s candidate and to justify inconvenient truth(s).

One such inconvenient truth is that incumbents for office, like Governor, for example, don’t need to debate their opponent. The conventional wisdom is that their record speaks for itself and there is nothing to be gained by debates for the incumbent. OK, set that aside for just a moment.

In another scenario, let’s say there’s an open seat for the United Sates Senate where we have two candidates from very different political persuasions and points of view, two people who have a record of public service and will be asked to deliberate on historic policy that profoundly impacts all Americans. Casting your vote for a candidate of this stature requires great study and knowledge of the candidate’s position on the issues we know they will face. In this scenario, debating your opponent would be a definitive advantage to BOTH candidates, right? It would also give voters insights into a candidate and allow us to confirm a view or further explore any positions a candidate may extol.

But, as I pointed out, these are unofficial rules and there is nothing that compels candidates to legally come together in the same space at the same time to have a moderator that would be agreed to by both candidates, ask equal questions with a set of rules that defines the time allowed to answer and respond to these questions so that you and I, devoted voters, can make an enhanced, educated vote when that time comes.

I know a thing or two about debating. I was a competitive debater in school. I have debated as a Congressional candidate and I have watched and attended well over 100 political debates in my adult life. I realize that some are better at the debate process than others. I get that completely and understand that the “gotcha” moment, no matter how good or bad you may be at debating, is something all candidates fear. I really do get that. Can you say “Texas Governor Rick Perry”?

With that preface, we now turn to today. Governor Rick Snyder and U.S. Senate candidate Terri Lynn Land, both Republicans, have, to this point, refused to commit to debating their respective opponents in the November 4 election, Mark Schauer and Gary Peters. We’ll have to guess at the reasons, and I’ll return to that in a moment, but to this point it’s clear that both Rick Snyder and Terri Lynn Land have no interest in debating their opponents, and chances are better than excellent that there will be no debates for either camp.

Why? Well, we have to speculate, don’t we?

Let’s start with Rick Snyder. As Chris shared with us on Saturday, Rick Snyder was a guest on a radio show last Friday and if that was a preview of what his debate answers would be, I would not debate if I were Rick Snyder either. Terri Lynn Land has made an ongoing blooper reel of her candidacy from the beginning, and the way both of these Republican candidates answered Grand Rapids WOOD-TV’s inquiry last week regarding whether or not they were willing to debate was an embarrassment. Land replied, “I want to continue to talk to voters and put Michigan first”, and Snyder’s excuse was, “I did in the last one”, referring to the one and ONLY debate between him and his 2010 opponent, Lansing Mayor Virg Bernero.

What’s really at issue here is not that we won’t see debates between the candidates, for whatever reason that may be, but that there aren’t rules in place that mandate debates between candidates running for specified offices.

I’m not suggesting that those running for your local school board and those running for the United States Senate have to play by the same rules, but I am suggesting that for certain elected offices, debates be required by statute as determined by a Commission. Other states and cities do this – for example Indiana and Utah – and it guarantees voters the right to hear a candidates position on a myriad of issues that are of great importance during any given campaign season.

Listen, and let’s be honest about this: the reason many of us want to see a debate between Mark Schauer and Rick Snyder is we know that Mark Schauer has so much ammo to use against Snyder that there is no way he would lose the debate, right? It would give us snippets of video and audio to make viral and would give fodder for the pundit class for weeks to come. I want that too. But we want this for different reasons than the right reasons, again, if we are to be honest.

As for a Land/Peters debate, do I even need to write this? We all know – Democrats, Republicans, political eunuchs, whomever – that Terri Lynn Land most likely doesn’t even talk to herself for fear that she will still be embarrassed by what she has to say. Yes, she is THAT bad. But, as voters, we have the right to hear them defend their positions on the issues we care about and to listen to them define and explain their points of view.

An educated electorate is an empowered electorate and therein lays the problem. I place responsibility for this problem at the feet of both political parties. This is not a new problem and if the political parties that represent us wanted change and candidate accountability, there would have already been change. This, again, is not a new problem and with many states addressing this debate issue years ago, there is a system in place that we can incorporate here in Michigan that would assure us that we would get a set number of debates for certain offices every election cycle and that would be the end of it. This way, people like Rick Snyder and Terri Lynn Land know in advance of making the decision to run that they would have to debate if they wanted the right to be elected by a citizenship that is deserving of answers to questions that have a profound impact on our lives. One has to wonder if maybe some of the candidates that have decided to run would not have made that decision if they knew they would HAVE to debate. It’s not as crazy a statement as you may think.

I look back on my days as a competitive debater and remember the one rule that was drilled into our minds as we prepared week in and week out. That rule, again an unofficial rule, was that the first person to drop an argument loses the argument. The other way of saying that is simply, you will be held accountable for what you say and if you think NOT saying it again absolves you of it, you’re wrong. You lose.

One more note before I walk away today, and pay heed. Those of us on the left and on the right already know with almost 100% certainty how we will vote in November. It’s those in the margin, and I can’t even conceive how many voters that actually is, that need convincing. You may say, how? How can anyone need convincing? Look at what Snyder has done, and then fill in the thousands of blanks. Or in Land’s case, look at what she said, or did, or acted upon, or denied as truth in the face of facts, etc. But the scary reality is that the vast number of people who will end up voting on election day will do so out of habit without knowledge or resource. That is our challenge. Reach them and get them to think and weigh the truth. Debates would make that much easier, but since we can’t rely on that to actually happen in Michigan, you have work to do. And, yes, we do need to be sure we get out the vote on November 4, but we also need to educate those we are getting out to vote, or we may have to deal with the reality of not doing that at our own peril.

So whether you are the incumbent and you don’t “need’ to debate, or you are running for an open seat and you “should” debate doesn’t matter in Michigan’s dysfunctional political climate. What does matter is that we find a way to fix a problem that is easily fixed and just do it.

The State of Michigan Commission on Debates is the start (it’s my title but we can change it). Who wants to finish this? I will volunteer to serve to make this happen. Who will join me? And, devoted voters, we all deserve what should be a routine expectation of the electoral process: debates, for the good of the process. How simple. Which is probably why it hasn’t happen yet.